So this theater dude from Brooklyn takes offense in this Federalist column
because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is translating some of Shakespeare's work into a more modern, easily understood version.
As any good condescending elitist would do, he asks: Are we too dumb for Shakespeare?
I'd answer: No, and offering more options as to how we read him doesn't make us so.
I was going to be an English teacher, came darn close in fact. But the second semester of my senior year at Augustana College, now University, I drew the short straw and was told I was going to do my student teaching in Lennox. As I was even dumber in college than I am now, I opted to nix that idea for various reasons.
But chief among them was that I'd been working part-time in the sports department at the Argus Leader throughout college and really enjoyed it. Heck, I'd moved up to have my own weekly bowling column! So I knew what I wanted to do with my life and made it official that I was going to pursue a career as a journalist, where they actually get paid less than teachers but don't complain about it as much.
So now I've sent three kids through high school, assuming the boy graduates this spring. I've watched a lot of their English teachers over the years, in various settings and grade levels. And, honestly, I haven't seen a bad one. My kids have been very fortunate to have been educated in two of, if not the best two, schools in the state: Brandon Valley and then St. Thomas More.
My oldest graduated from Black Hills State University last year and I remember her telling me early in her college career that many of the kids writing papers didn't even know what a bibliography was. "We were doing that for Mr. Garcia in the eighth-grade."
But what I want to touch on here is not the grammar and research side of English teaching, but the literature side, where I think too much emphasis goes into teaching the old, often boring, classics, and not on reading material that students will enjoy and spur them to become lifelong readers.
Both my daughters, the youngest a senior at SDSU, are avid readers, but it's not because they were forced to read Catcher in the Rye or Giants of the Earth. In fact, in spite of that. I give credit to one person and one person only: Harry Potter.
He was born when the girls where in elementary and middle school and their reading interest blossomed through him. If J.K. Rowlings hadn't come along, I'm not so sure her fellow Brit William Shakespeare would have inspired the same enjoyment of reading that has become a lifelong passion of theirs.
It's not that I'm even against teaching Shakespeare in high school, but I'd scale it back. You can give kids a taste of his style and language without making them read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. I took a semester of Shakespeare in college and much to my advisor's chagrin hated it even then. You need to, at minimum, give teenagers some enjoyable stuff to read too.
My kids have had required reading during the summers from STM. This past year my boy read Giants of the Earth, which even I find tedious. Do we really think this will inspire him to want to read more? If I were assigning summer reading, I would assign a shorter classic, like Red Badge of Courage and then assign them one fiction book and one non-fiction book of their choosing. That's one book a month during the summer. Even a 17-year-old in love with baseball and a girl can fit that in his schedule.
We need to develop a love of reading in our youth. It's not easy and it's not going to happen with a lot of the classics, when the alternative is the new season of Walking Dead on Netflix and Assassins Creed on the Xbox.
There's no reason students can't be reading some popular fiction in their lit classes as well. Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Hardy Boys, Louis L'Amour, heck I read the entire Tarzan series in junior high. Throw in a Dean Koontz Odd Thomas Book for good measure. There are tons of great contemporary writers and topics that can teach setting, place, voice, plot and character development as well as or better than the novels that our college professors told us we had to teach so we could check the box and they could maybe answer the Jeopardy question someday: Who were the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet?
And many of the great authors of old wrote terrific short stories. Assign those quick-hits instead to these attention-span-challenged kids. Don't bore the kids or turn them off from reading. If they enjoy it, they have a better chance of picking up a novel on their own. When they don't see reading as an enjoyment, but as something to struggle through, who can blame them for turning to the Alaskan Bush People instead.
If our youth acquire an affinity for a reading, then we can spring some of the more challenging authors on them in college, or they may choose to do so on their own as adults. I'm all for challenging our youth, but save Billy Shakes for the more advanced readers who have proven an ability to grasp deeper reading.
While ol' David Marcus of the Federalist considers Shakespeare's English the same as America's modern English. It's not. It's practically a foreign language. As you wouldn't drop a French version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables on a 15-year-old, they should be eased into Macbeth as well and experience it a point where it won't so overcome them that it discourages them to read more. And if adults want to see or read a play by Shakespeare in a manner more easy for them to understand, so be it.
I'm more about encouraging people to read than worrying about what they read or in which language.
“Receive what cheer you may. The night is long that never finds the day.”